Top 5 Underrated MMOs

by Tyler Edwards, Sep 12, 2012

MMOs are a big genre. That means there are a lot of games to choose from, but it also means some games get lost in the shuffle. On top of that, the huge and persistent success of World of Warcraft leads to people viewing any game that isn't immediately a blockbuster hit as a failure. As a result, there are a lot of unique and interesting games out there that aren't getting the credit they deserve. These games might not be perfect - they wouldn't be underrated if they were - but they all bring something good to the table, and they might just be worth a second look.

vanguard screenshot

5:Vanguard: Saga of Heroes:

The launch is a crucial time for any MMO. A bad launch will haunt a game for years to come, forever poisoning the public's perception of the game - perhaps unfairly. Vanguard: Saga of Heroes is an example of this.

For much of its early history, Vanguard was, bluntly, a train wreck. From the start, it suffered from severe bugs, performance issues, and a crippling lack of content. As a result, it all but died within a few months of release. The press turned on it; fans turned on it. Its own developers turned on each other, with one disgruntled employee even going so far as to accuse designer Brad McQuaid of drug abuse [Warning: Link contains mature language].

But that was not the end for Vanguard. It was acquired by Sony Online Entertainment, makers of EverQuest and other popular MMOs, and they set about repairing the gaping holes in the game. Eventually, they fixed the worst of the bugs, and they've even started rolling out new content again. By all reports, it's now a very respectable MMO with a lot to offer.

Now that it actually works, players can appreciate the distinctive features of Vanguard. The game's content is divided into three "spheres," which are largely self-contained and can be played independent of each other. Adventuring includes the standard MMO fare of quests and dungeons, crafting is self-explanatory, and diplomacy is a unique system to Vanguard that functions similarly to a turn based trading card game.

Vanguard also avoids instancing, which should appeal to those who feel instanced content cheapens the MMO experience.

anarchy online screenshot

4: Anarchy Online:

At more than ten years old, Anarchy Online is getting a bit long in the tooth. That it's still running at all is an achievement in itself.

But even in its day, AO had some impressive accomplishments to its name. It was the first MMO to buck the fantasy trend and use a science fiction setting - something you don't see a lot of even today. Instead of a knight or a mage, players in AO take on the role of colonists on the desert planet of Rubi-Ka.

Anarchy Online also innovated with features like instanced environments separate from the main game world and a free trial. Nowadays, such things are ubiquitous, but back then, these were radical new ideas. It was also the first game to implement in game advertising.

Even compared to modern games, AO has some unique features. One is its "dynamic missions," in which characters can essentially create their own quests by specifying a few parameters. Another is its skill system, where all skills are available to all professions. While some professions have innately higher capabilities with some skills, it nonetheless offers a lot of customization potential.

Anarchy Online will undoubtedly feel a bit out of date compared to more recent games, but it still could be interesting to check out as an important piece of MMO history.

tale in the desert

3: A Tale in the Desert:

A Tale in the Desert, or ATitD, is one of the most unique MMOs out there. It rejects not only standard ideas like a fantasy setting or a gear grind, it even rejects any form of combat. Set in ancient Egypt, the game revolves entirely around crafting, exploration, and the societal interactions of players.

ATitD is also a wild departure from the traditional MMO mold in that it has an end. The game is divided into "Tellings" that last many months and end with the completion of the pyramids. When a Telling ends, achievements and the like are tabulated to determine the top players, and then the game essentially ends and starts over from scratch, often with new or modified features.

Community is very important in ATitD. Players have a great deal of power over how the game is run and regulated. For instance, players can be elected to the position of "Demi-Pharoah," which grants the power to ban up to seven other characters. Players also have a great deal of control over the game's direction; its independent developer, eGenesis, is constantly seeking feedback and altering the game based on player opinion. Change can also be made via in game petitions that alter the laws of the game world.

AtitD is definitely a very niche game, but those with an open mind may find it a welcome respite from the traditional MMO formula.

aion screenshot

2: Aion:

There are generally two complaints leveled against Aion: that it is just another World of Warcraft clone, and that it's just another Asian grindfest.

The former is largely true. WoW players will recognize a lot when they step into Aion's world of Atreia. But let's be honest here: "WoW clone" describes at least half of the MMO industry these days, so that's hardly a problem unique to Aion. As for the "grindfest" accusation, it used to be accurate, but its developer, NCsoft, has done a lot to decrease the grind required to advance in the game, and its level of grind is now about on par with most of its competitors.

And once you get past those two oft repeated criticisms, Aion does have a lot going for it. It offers a unique "PvPvE" style of content, in which two factions of players and a third faction of NPCs battle in intense, epic battles. Its combat system, while not exactly revolutionary, is solid, featuring chain skills that build to satisfying finishers.

Its graphics, while aging, are nonetheless still impressive, and depict beautifully surreal and otherworldly environments. It also features utterly unmatched character customization. While Aion only has two playable races, you can still find more visual variety between characters than in many games with a much larger selection of races. There's virtually no limit to the ways you can customize your avatar.

And, of course, there's its prime selling feature: that every player can take wing and fly from level ten onwards. A number of obtrusive no fly zones do render this a bit less enjoyable than you might expect, but even so, having a pair of wings can come in very handy.

With its transition to free to play and promises of no less than three new classes in the upcoming 4.0 expansion, there's never been a better time to check out Aion.

the secret world

1: The Secret World:

The Secret World has been getting a lot of bad press lately. It failed to meet sales expectations after its launch, there have been layoffs of its staff, and the stock of developer Funcom has slipped. It hasn't been a complete failure, but no one's going to claim these aren't disappointing results.

You don't have to look hard to find reasons why TSW hasn't been a runaway hit. A lot of MMOs try to appeal to a large audience with relatively family friendly content, moderate tech requirements, and a lot of easy content, but TSW lost a good chunk of potential customers out of the gate with its mature content, relatively high difficulty, and steep technical requirements. Funcom also has a bad reputation from the mistakes they made with past games, and the game's release was overshadowed by the launch of Guild Wars 2 a few weeks later.

However, none of those things are issues with the quality of the game itself. If you actually sit down and play The Secret World, you'd be hard-pressed to find any serious design flaws, and you will find a lot of amazing things about the game.

If you're tired of the same old fantasy MMO formula, TSW is a breath of fresh air. Even Guild Wars 2, for all its impressive innovations, still maintains a standard high fantasy setting with a generic story about angry dragons. TSW offers a hauntingly familiar modern world setting and a deep, intriguing story involving morally ambiguous secret societies and dark, Lovecraftian horrors from beneath the earth.

The character progression system in TSW is also very unique. It's perhaps not so non-traditional as Funcom likes to claim, but the complete lack of classes and the ability to create virtually any kind of character you want still provides an amazing level of freedom.

Add to that nice graphics, great music and voiceovers, and a unique questing model that blurs the line between gaming and reality, and you have a very fun and unique MMO experience.

The Secret World may not be for everyone, but dedicated gamers looking for something different will find a lot to appreciate about it once they get past the bad press.